GOMA, DR Congo (AFP) – A heavily armed brigade of UN troops with more power to fight renegade forces than ever before has received a cautious welcome in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a region ravaged for decades by conflict.
"We want the brigade to intervene. Each time our government has negotiated with rebel forces, new ones have appeared," said Ester Kamate, a pharmacist in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.
"We don't believe in Kampala," she added, referring to the Ugandan capital where stalled peace talks have been taking place.
"This time, we must hunt them down."
The UN Security Council decided on March 28 to set up the intervention force of some 3,000 soldiers who are currently gathering on the ground.
Troops drawn in equal numbers from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania will join about 17,000 UN soldiers already deployed in the area with a limited mandate to protect civilians and themselves only.
The new UN force is tasked with carrying out offensive operations, either alone or jointly with the Congolese armed forces, "in a robust, highly mobile and versatile manner" to disrupt armed groups and disarm their fighters.
Residents of Goma, next to the border with Rwanda, are threatened by M23 fighters camped nearby, who comprise the main resistance force operating in eastern Congo, along with Hutu rebels from Rwanda and vestiges of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
M23 rebels captured Goma on November 20 last year, holding it for 10 days. They left only when leaders from the Great Lakes nations of central Africa promised fresh negotiations, opening the Kampala talks.
M23 consists mainly of ex-rebels who were integrated into the army in 2009 but mutinied in 2012, claiming the government had broken promises made to persuade them to join its ranks. Kinshasa and the United Nations have accused neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda of backing the movement - a charge both countries deny.
The same UN resolution that gave the brigade the green light condemned M23, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the LRA "and all other armed groups and their continuing violence and abuses of human rights."
In all, about 30 armed groups are active in the region, where they have lucrative stakes in the illegal mining of diamonds, gold and coltan, which is used in high-tech manufacturing and the production of mobile phones. These minerals are then exported around the world via neighbouring Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.
The duties of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) have up to now been limited to protection, which has largely prevented the troops from acting alongside the regular army (FARDC).
The UN force's previously limited mandate has led to frustration and animosity from many residents.
"Where I come from, in the Masisi, I settled down close to MONUSCO troops. They were there, but they did nothing to prevent the massacre of civilians...," said Kahindi Noodle, 48, living in a camp for displaced people west of Goma.
"The brigade will change nothing," he added.
The stakes are high for the United Nations, which has maintained a presence in the DRC for 15 years through two devastating wars and constant conflict in the east, using military tactics based on interposition between rival forces rather than intervention.
Part of the new UN contingent has begun to patrol Goma and the strategic route between the city and Sake, a town about 20 kilometres (12 miles) away, where the force will be based.
The patrols have a dual objective: to enable soldiers to become familiar with the terrain and to reassure an impatient population.
"The brigade must make a show of force to wipe out M23. I am confident," said Theobald Buswagire, a resident of Goma's Ndosho district, where a shell killed a child in May during clashes between M23 and the army.
"When I saw the brigade, I told myself there was going to be a change. I saw their ammunition and it's good ammunition," he added, nodding hard.
But asked about the Kampala talks on his first visit to eastern DR Congo, the new commmander of MONUSCO, Brazilian General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, stressed that a political solution was "extremely important".
"Everybody knows that the solution is political.... The military element remains totally synchronised with the political process," he said.
The general stressed that the UN force will use "all means possible" to prevent atrocities against civilians. "It is important to remember that we have a very clear mandate and that the priority is still the protection of civilians," he said.